All Through The Night

As You Desire

Bridal Favors

The Bridal Season

A Dangerous Man

My Dearest Enemy
McClairen's Isle:
The Passionate One

McClairen's Isle:
The Ravishing One

McClairen's Isle:
The Reckless One

My Pleasure

My Scottish Summer

My Seduction

Hot Dish
by Connie Brockway
(Signet, $7.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-21983-X
It is difficult to call Hot Dish Connie Brockwayís break-out book because she already has a well respected history as a writer, having made her name in romance fiction with her original, highly rated historical romances. (My Dearest Enemy is a personal favorite of mine.) But Hot Dish is the kind of book more typically seen when an author gets her first hardback title.

Switching genres, Ms. Brockway has written a contemporary with more in common with general fiction than traditional romance. The more mature characters, the sparkling humor, the subtle commentary on modern life styles Ė in every respect, Hot Dish signals a new level in the authorís career. Fans of hers who might worry that with the new direction sheíll lose her edge can relax: Hot Dish may be the best book sheís ever written.

When she was still in high school, Jennifer Hallesbyís parents lost all their money and their upper income lifestyle. They move from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Fawn Creek, Minnesota. Jennifer feels unwelcome and out of place and yearns to go back to North Carolina and resume her prior life. She hates small towns; she particularly hates Fawn Creek.

She believes that by winning the Queen Buttercup title and scholarship at the Minnesota State Fair sheíll have the resources to go to college in North Carolina. She wins the Miss Fawn Creek title, but at the last minute is disqualified from the second contest. She learns that sheís resented because she came from elsewhere and took the title long expected to go to one of her classmates.

Famous sculptor Steven Jaax is in attendance at the fair. He will carve a butter sculpture of each of the Buttercup Princesses. Jenn is the first to model. During the session, she has a meltdown and pours out her woes for the mostly unsympathetic Jaax. It causes Jaax, however, to look at her in a different light, and his sculpture is a true work of art.

Before he can carve butter busts of the other Princesses, he is grabbed by bounty hunters for jumping bail. Jaax and his ex-wife, the super-model Fabulousa, are in a fierce battle over the spoils of marriage. Jaax secrets the key to a vault hiding a valuable sculpture in Jennís butter head.

More than twenty years pass. Jaax, nearing fifty, is now a celebrated artist and celebrity; he credits his turn in artistic direction to the moment of epiphany he experienced when studying Jennís face. But success has turned sour; he feels as though heís lost his artistic spark and his recent pieces have been inferior.

Forty-year-old Jenn, now known as Jenn Lind to enhance her Minnesota image, is moving from a local TV spot in the Martha Stewart mold to becoming the star of a daily national cable program. Her goal of success is within her grasp. She dislikes the ultra-conservative, ultra-critical, narrow-minder owner of the media empire, Dwight Davies, but is willing to accept anything to achieve her goal.

Fawn Creek is about to celebrate its sesquicentennial, an event designed to highlight the winter delights of small town Minnesota and reap the financial benefits. The town leaders invite Jenn and Steve Jaax, who have not seen each other since the butter head carving, to be co-marshals of the celebration. It seems that Jennís mother had saved the butter sculpture; rather than being melted on a griddle long ago, itís been residing in the Hallesbysí freezer. That butter sculpture is now the oldest one in existence. Itís created a lot of interest.

Jennís very first cable TV program will be situated in Fawn Creek. Soon an odd assortment of characters from diverse locales with differing motivations will be assembling in the small town Jenn has always despised.

When the story opens, a disguised Jenn (Dwight Davies does not approve of gambling) is competing in a poker tournament at the nearby casino to win money ... and itís all the fault of that butter head.

Hot Dish is a tasty dish in every way. Itís laugh-out-loud funny, insightful, and thoroughly enjoyable. The main characters, Jenn and Steve, are mature characters with life experiences behind them but with some living and learning yet to do. The character development and plot are well established and inventive; the dialogue is clever. Rather than mere wallpaper, the Minnesota setting (author Brockway is a resident) is an integral part of the story.

Fawn Creek, as every good small town should be, is populated by a variety of wacky characters. An issue in the plot is Jennís perception of Fawn Creek and its residents as contrasted with their perceptions of her and Steveís perceptions of all of them. Many authors would throw in so many secondary characters and neglect to make them individuals. In Hot Dish Connie Brockway makes them understandable, funny, and distinct.

As a reviewer for TRR, I am careful when giving a five-heart rating; such a book has to be superior in every respect. I was caught up in Hot Dish from the first scene, and my interest only grew the longer I read. The story never runs out of steam and even gets better with each succeeding chapter. I never considered giving it anything less than five hearts.

Jennifer Crusie, move over. Connie Brockway has written her first contemporary, and itís a winner!

--Lesley Dunlap

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